SGS Spotlights Gina Lonati

Author: Sarah Hall

Posted on Jun 15, 2023

Category: Student Stories , News and Events

Profile of: Gina Lonati

Dissertation Title: The effects of prey dynamics and human impacts on mysticete health

Faculty: Science, Applied Science and Engineering

Department: Biological Sciences

Supervisor: Dr. Kimberley Davies

During a routine check-up, doctors measure our weight, heart rate, and temperature.  Veterinarians collect the same data from our pets to make sure they are healthy and eating right.  Even some wild animals are caught so researchers can measure their vital rates.  But what about large mysticete whales, like a 16 m-long, critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW)?  It is especially important that we monitor the health of whales, considering that many species are still struggling to recover after decades of whaling.  Even today, individuals face multiple stressors from human activities and climate change.

Since the 2010s, researchers have been using aerial drones to collect health data from free-swimming whales.  For example, drone-based imagery can provide measurements of a whale’s body condition (i.e., how fat/skinny it is), and drones with petri dishes can collect exhaled blow samples to assess hormones and look for pathogens.  As a PhD candidate at UNBSJ, I am using a drone with a thermal camera to explore a new metric of whale health.  Specifically, I want to know if we can estimate the internal body temperature of a whale by taking thermal videos of its open blowholes.  If so, these measurements could reveal if whales get fevers or experience hypothermia.  I am also using drone images to distinguish changes in whale body condition associated with fasting migrations and reproduction versus those caused by entanglements or vessel strikes.

No study on whale health would be complete without considering what the whales are eating.  Accordingly, I am also studying the distribution, quality, and quantity of plankton in the southwestern Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, which has recently become a feeding hotspot for NARWs.  I want to identify which oceanographic features concentrate NARW prey, so we can mitigate human impacts on whales in critical foraging habitats.